Innate Nature: a Human Universal?

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King & Don edit entire chapter: Part III

Most Chinese Constructs National; Innate Nature Universal

Before yin yang theory, before 5 phase theory, there was already the Tao (the Way), Te (Personal Power), and the triads of Heaven-Human-Earth and jing-ch’i-shên. The ancient Chinese employed these constructs to understand our human relationship with the world. For instance, unifying jing, ch’i and shên (the three inner jewels) aligns one with the Tao, which increases Personal Power (Te). This unification is linked to the inner vitality that underlies inspiration and longevity.

‘Possibly the oldest mystical text in China’1 according to some reputable scholars, the Nei-yeh clearly, almost technically, delineates the relevant relationships between each of these ancient constructs with regards to the physiological psychology of humans. These relational constructs continue to be employed over 2 millennia later, even unto the 21st century2.

This functional usage is used to communicate especially in the East Asian spiritual and martial arts communities (China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam).  For instance, Master Ni, September 2003: “Most martial only teach jing-ch’i. I teach jing-ch’i-shên”. The implication is that he includes the transcendent spiritual component in his teachings.

In addition to the preceding network of concepts, there is another ancient construct with the same longevity and staying power – innate nature (hsing). The other ancient concepts, including yin-yang and 5-phase theory, have a uniquely East Asian context. While we might sense the rough meaning of the yin-yang polarity and the Tao, it helps immensely to have some familiarity with their usage in a Chinese context.

This is not true of innate nature. While the Chinese employ the hsing ideogram in a nuanced fashion that is unique to their culture, the concept of innate nature could almost be called a human universal. Whether Christian, Muslim, Hindu or Science-oriented, we all have at least an instinctive understanding of the term (as we shall soon see in the subsequent sections).

What sets the Chinese treatment apart is that they place innate nature in a technical relationship with their other constructs. In so doing, their texts provide a cogent rationale as to both the existence of and the importance of cultivating innate nature.

Innate Nature: My Personal Experience

Before proceeding forth into a sumptuous multicultural feast, let’s discuss the significance of innate nature to me. Why do I consider this to be the most fascinating aspect of the Huai-nan Tzu?

I have been aware of innate nature for a long time. Perhaps this is because of my unusual life. My education has been meager, no advanced degrees. Despite this humble foundation, I have been driven by my Muse, presumably one representative of my innate nature, to research and write multiple books on a variety of topics. These works including my original Science and histories of China and Southeast Asia. Further, my inner urges have motivated me since youth to be what is commonly called a cross dresser – a man who enjoys wearing women’s clothes.

No family background, training or cultural conditioning has pushed me in these unusual directions. These traits seemed to be inherent in my psyche at birth. Very early on, long before becoming aware of Chinese philosophy, I had already toyed with the idea that my original, birth nature imbued me with these characteristics.

Then I had two daughters, who also seemed to come with distinctive personality traits from birth that had nothing to do with familial or cultural conditioning. Looking around at the people in my life, it appeared that everyone I knew had a unique personality that had emerged very early on.

Further, those who were able to cultivate and manifest their original nature throughout their lives seemed happiest, even blessed. Confirming my intuitions, modern psychology instructs parents to nurture their children’s unique interests, rather than forcing them into culturally approved directions. This strategy of encouraging this inner enthusiasm presumably results in a better life for our offspring.

Having identified this aspect of human beings, I began forming models, as is my natural childhood inclination. According to my current model, innate nature, an emergent feature of the human genome, is a personal inner urge that all humans, and perhaps all life forms, possess. It is different from biological drives, e.g. hunger, thirst, and even the need for sleep; in that they are directly linked with the survival of the organism. Rather our original nature is the urge to for each individual to self-actualize – for each to fulfill their own unique distinctive human potentials. Although behavior is shaped to some extent by culture, innate nature drives us to express ourselves in a manner that is particular to the individual.

I believe that my innate nature is what led me to write this book. Over decades, there have been multiple divine coincidences, e.g. mysterious happenings, books, writings, and accidental meetings, that have pushed me in this odd direction. Never been to China. Never studied Chinese history in college. My degree is in Psychology, primarily experimental. My background did not explain this bizarre path.

I am not unusual in this regard. Many individuals who have furthered human culture seemed to also be driven by inner sources to take the road less traveled in order to make their unique contribution. This pattern applies to actors, artists, scientists, political and religious leaders.

Due to its highly specific quality, it seems hard to imagine that these personal urges that begin at birth and follow us through our lives could have derived from merely random genetic mutations. Rather my model suggests that innate nature has a Divine Source. Further, it seems that the Universe/Providence provides assistance when we manifest our innate nature. This intimate connection with Providence suggests that the purpose of our original nature is to fulfill some kind of Divine Mission.

While many successful people seem to fulfill culturally imbued roles, there are myriad examples of exceptional individuals who come from unexceptional backgrounds, pursue an odd course, and transform human culture with their unique contribution. It is to these rare individuals that our innate nature model applies.

Manifesting innate nature is not easy. It doesn’t necessarily lead to 24-7 around the clock happiness. Rather there are many obstacles and ordeals on the Path to self-actualization. Self-doubt and pain actually lead us to occasionally wonder if we would have been better off taking the well-trod path. However deep down, we know that following our innate nature is the best Path – the only Way – the Tao.

These are some of the common themes from my personal experience with innate nature. Imagine my wonder and amazement when I came upon these Chinese texts that delved deeply into this topic that is so dear to my heart. Feel my excitement when I realized that innate nature is an integral part of human culture. Even if it is not called out by name, there are countless examples of this bewildering urge in the literature and heroes of every culture.

Literary & Historical Examples of Innate Nature in Action

We made the bold claim that virtually anyone can understand the Chinese concept of innate nature. Why? Even if left unnamed, it seems that innate nature is a common feature of most, if not all, human cultures. To justify this assertion, we will explore its usage in prominent examples from literature, history and the major religions. From this exploration, we will come to have a deeper understanding of the universality, meaning and significance of innate nature.

Let us provide some significant examples from diverse cultures to make our point: regardless of what it is called or even if it is unnamed, innate nature is a human universal.

The Ramayana from Hindu literature:

Rama, the hero of this classic Hindu tale, is assigned a divine duty by the gods. He must defeat the Demon Ravana, who has taken over a sacred island and threatens the leadership of the gods. To achieve this end, he must save Sita, his soul mate, who has been captured by Ravana. After going through the doubts related to setbacks and confusion, Rama finally prevails with some help from the gods.

This is a great example of many of the themes linked to a unique manifestation of innate nature. 1) The gods impart Rama’s Divine Mission – the source of his innate nature. 2) He must go through excruciating ordeals to achieve his goals. 3) He prevails in the end, but only 4) due to divine assistance.

Journey to the West from Chinese literature

This 2000-page allegorical novel is one of China’s five most important fictional works. At the beginning of the tale, Tripitaka, a Buddhist monk, receives his Mission, which can be likened to his innate nature. The Buddhist Boddhisatva Kuan-yin transmits this divine message to him. Tripitaka must travel to the Himalayas to receive Buddhist scriptures and then return to China to instruct the people. The entire 2000-page novel describes the ordeals that Tripitaka goes through to fulfill his Mission. He receives divine assistance when he is on the Path to fulfill his innate nature, but it is withdrawn if he wanders off.

Iliad & Odyssey from Ancient Greek Civilization:

Achilles and Odysseus, the heroes of these classic tales, provide great examples of innate nature. They are provided with a divine mission. In the case of Achilles, he must defeat Hector and the Trojans, while Odysseus must return to defend his home and wife Penelope. These tasks are not easy and in fact require great ingenuity and martial prowess to accomplish. However, both heroes receive divine assistance to achieve their difficult goals, which is an expression of their innate nature.

The Western Bible

The term and even the concept of ‘innate nature’ is virtually absent from the Bible-based religions of Western culture, i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. However, the leaders and founders of these religions provide excellent examples of the manifestation and features of innate nature.

Each of the leaders, e.g. Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, had a divine calling. In most, if not all cases, God spoke directly to these individuals telling them what he expected of them. He provided them with a Divine Mission that was unique to their individual natures. The directives were never easy, but always had divine assistance.

For instance, the Hebrew God instructs Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac, certainly a violation of social morays. God supplies a goat to supplant Isaac and then rewards Abraham for his loyalty, by making him father of the long-lasting Jewish nation.

Moses initially resists the Call, but eventually is impelled by God to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. He and the 12 tribes wander the Sinai wilderness for 40 years in search of the Promised Land. After many trials and tribulations on their journey, the 12 tribes reach the border of Canaan, the place they are to settle. Moses dies viewing his ultimate destination.

Mohammed hears inner voices supposedly coming from Allah. Following the directives of this Divine Voice, he unites the previously polytheistic Arab tribes behind a single God. Despite incredibly bad odds, he leads his army to victory against more powerful Roman and Persian forces. He dies before the war is complete.

While each of the above Prophets presumably received their Divine Mission from God, Jesus appears to follow his own unique, ‘Divine’ Nature. He preaches the Word of a more inclusive and peaceful God. Despite miracles, including healing the dead, he is betrayed, imprisoned and crucified. After 3 days, he seemingly defeats death and ascends to Heaven.

Each of these cases follows similar patterns. Each of our heroes has a Divine Mission to perform. Whether divine, semi-divine, or human, Moses, Jesus, Mohammed, Rama, Achilles or Tripitaka each go through excruciating ordeals to fulfill this Mission. The directives frequently challenge existing social morays and they each receive divine assistance when they are on the Path.

More importantly, our individuals become heroes because they undertake the divine journey and persist against all odds to accomplish their goals. Despite the outcome, e.g. crucifixion for Jesus, most would feel that these heroes made the correct choice in following their divine directive, which entailed embracing their innate, unique nature.

From this brief survey of world literary culture, it would seem that innate nature permeates and is an integral feature of key hero stories across a broad range of cultures. Even though these tales often identify a divine source for the hero’s mission, it is also possible to conceive of the divine as actually a manifestation of our innate nature. In this sense, what can be viewed as divine can also be considered a function of human psychological forces at work.

Mahabharata: The Destructive Side of following Social Dharma

What are the potential consequences of not following one’s innate nature?

Let us provide an example from Hindu literature that is based upon the idea of Dharma. This powerful construct originated in the religions of the South Asian subcontinent, i.e. Hinduism and Buddhism. Traveling through Central Asia, Buddhist monks introduced the notion of Dharma to the Chinese.

Loosely translated, Dharma means duty. Originally it referred to the specific duties of a caste, e.g. warrior caste, or a family role, e.g. the wife. Since these duties derive from culture, we call them Social Dharma.

Later on, Buddhists gave Dharma less of a caste orientation in favor of a more personal meaning – the duty to our purified Self – our Buddha nature. Rather than a rigid adherence to a social definition of one’s role,  our Buddha nature emerges when we purify our heart-mind (hsin) of polluting influences, such as emotions and desires. Manifesting our Buddha nature puts us on the Dharma Wheel.

The Dharma Wheel frequently, but not always, rolls over the duties associated with Social Dharma. For instance, the Buddhist monk leaves his social responsibilities behind as he pursues his individual search for enlightenment.

We are likening innate nature to our Personal Dharma and will use these terms interchangeably. Manifesting our innate nature is akin to the notion of being on  the Dharma Wheel. Sometimes Social and Personal Dharma come into direct conflict.

The Mahabharata, a classic religious novel from the Hindu tradition, provides a dramatic example of this conflict. This story explores the conflict between Social Dharma and Personal Dharma – between collective and individual duties. The heroes of the tale, the Pandava brothers, are placed in a dharmic dilemma, where they must choose between the two sets of responsibilities.

The societal dharma of sons is to obey their father or the elder of the family. By extension, the dharma (duty) of a prince is to obey the king. These filial duties are unconditional – no mitigating factors allowed.

Near the beginning of our tale, the father of the Pandava brothers dies. His blind brother replaces him as king of the empire. The blind king naturally favors his own son, Durodhyana, over the Pandavas. Unfortunately, Durodhyana is intensely jealous of the popular Pandavas, who happen to be incarnated gods. Durodhyana uses his favored position to manipulate his blind father/king into making unsound decisions. These decisions include banishing the loyal Pandavas from the capital.

Because his father, the king, is blind to Durodhyana’s evil motivations, he agrees to his son’s demands, no matter how unreasonable. Due to their social dharma, the Pandavas feel that they must accede to the ridiculous directives of the king, who is also their uncle. Their blind obedience to their social duty, ultimately lands the brothers in a terrible dilemma.

Durodhyana manipulates his blind father into forcing the Pandavas to participate in a presumably rigged game of dice. Ultimately, the oldest brother, Yudhistra, loses everything, including his wife, Draupati, to Durodhyana, his cousin. Compounding the intensity, Draupati is so powerful that she is the wife of, not just Yudhistra, but all the Pandava brothers. Strange, but true – she has a male harem, each of whom are incarnated gods. Yet, as we shall see, they are impotent before their Social Dharma, at least they believe they are.

Taking advantage of the situation, Durodhyana orders the Pandava’s collective wife, Draupati, to be stripped of her clothes in front of the assembled court - an outrage in any culture. Durodhyana’s blind father is silent to his son’s offensive demand. Because of their princely dharma, the Pandavas must presumably obey the unspoken directive that allows Durodhyana to pursue his destructive, emotion-driven path.

The younger brothers have the spontaneous urge to right this blatant injustice committed against their collective wife, Draupati. This inner urge to defend their soul mate could be likened to their innate nature, as it comes from deep in the psyche. The innate nature of any husband could be the same in similar circumstances.

However, their older brother requests that they follow their Social Dharma to the king and suppress their urge (innate nature) to defend their collective wife in this horrific situation. The younger brothers must also follow their family dharma and obey the directives of their older brother. Doubly bound, they are trapped and Durodhyana knows it.

Rather than remain silent as the social dharma of a wife demands, Draupati confronts them all – husbands, uncles, generals and king, for passively accepting their duty to the king. Her impassioned plea continues by arguing that sometimes natural human decency must trump rigid dharmic considerations. Despite Draupati’s eloquent defense, this assemblage of the most powerful and righteous men in the empire remain mute – paralyzed by their Social Dharma. Saving them all from this humiliating situation, the god Krishna comes to Draupati’s aid.

This interaction drives the remainder of the tale, which eventually results in a destructive war, where virtually everyone is killed. If the younger brothers had expressed their innate nature when it was happening, the conflagration could have been avoided. Rather than obediently following their Dharma to their elder brother and to their uncle the king, they would have militantly defended their collective wife against Durodhyana’s outrageous demands.

Saving their wife from humiliation would have also challenged the flawed leadership of both the king and their older brother. While violating social dharma, this spontaneous expression of innate nature (personal dharma) could easily have established a more reasonable and righteous rule under the leadership of the Pandavas. Instead their inability to stand up for their wife results in a destructive bloodbath that wiped out most of the empire’s young men. After this preventable carnage, the Pandavas ultimately become rulers of the empire.

This little drama reveals the negative side of blindly following Social Dharma. Obediently following pre-ordained roles can have destructive, yet preventable, consequences. In contrast, listening to one’s purified heart-mind (innate nature/personal Dharma) can reverse these negative spirals. However, following our personal Dharma can be difficult because this Path sometimes violates the conventions dictated by our social Dharma. Plus, with no social precedent, the Path can be hard to find.

Inherent Conflicts between Innate Nature & Cultural Conditioning

This Hindu narrative is admittedly an extreme example. However, we are regularly faced with situations where social duties (dharma) override duty to our Personal Dharma (innate nature). Dominated by Social Dharma, the Pandava brothers, despite great physical prowess, were silent even as their wife Draupati was about to be stripped of her clothes. In contrast, Draupati challenged her Social Dharma by defending herself against this obscene demand.

Some of these dharmic dilemmas are external – happening in the world that surrounds us; while others are internal – happening only inside our heads. On an external level, we would like to speak out against perceived injustice, but can be paralyzed due to fear of social isolation. On internal levels, emotions may drive us to ignore our Little Voice (the mouthpiece of our Innate Nature).

Instead, we frequently follow ongoing programs that have been developed through the influence of parents, friends, school and by extension the society at large. These societal programs may have been developed as early as childhood. Cultural Conditioning is the name we give to this collection of influences that shape our behavior through deep, internal programming.

We could substitute Cultural Conditioning for Social Dharma. Social Dharma within the Hindu perspective is a codified, hence explicit version of the more general Cultural Conditioning. Yet, most of the times Cultural Conditioning is implicit. Many, if not most, are not even aware that their attitudes and behavior are shaped to a large extent by social forces, some inborn and some learned.   

Cultural Conditioning generally shapes our behavior to fit into our social environment. Sometimes what uniquely motivates the individual may easily fit into community mores, but sometimes not. Sometimes, there is no clash between general, societal urges and one’s Inner Voice. Frequently, there is.

When is the urge Innate Nature and when Cultural Conditioning?

There are bound to be conflicts between Innate Nature and Cultural Conditioning – some severe and others mild. In some ways, infancy and childhood could be the testing ground for the boundaries between the two types of urges – personal and collective. The child looks furtively deciding whether to run the other direction or to obey mother.

Sometimes even embarking upon the Journey immediately entails conflicts that result in trials and ordeals. Why? Expressing innate nature frequently violates community standards. Society inevitably attempts to influence the individual to suppress those aspects of personality that disrupt social expectation. The lesson we are asked to learn is that we must ignore our Inner Voice if it becomes disruptive. The challenge is to keep that Inner Voice alive and productive within the constraints of Cultural Conditioning.

For instance, standing up for ourselves (innate nature) in the face of oppression might evoke retaliatory behavior – from shunning to imprisonment and even physical harm. Depending upon the level of severity, this controlling strategy might require the individual to engage in a wide range of defensive fight or flight responses. The point is that expressing our birth nature could easily lead to trouble with the authorities.

Sometimes these authority figures are external and sometimes internal – real or imagined. Sometimes the punishment for violating social norms is severe, sometimes mild or even non-existent. Sometimes our perception of the interaction is fairly realistic; and sometimes we blow consequences way out of proportion. Sometimes we are expressing our personal Dharma and sometimes our social Dharma. And sometimes we confuse our Social Dharma with  our personal Dharma.

Our assessment of our social situation may easily result in many distorted perceptions. Therefore it is imperative that we carefully examine the particulars of these charged interactions. How are we to distinguish real from imaginary foes? How can we tell when we are really expressing personal Dharma – not social Dharma in disguise? When is the Little Voice advocating for Innate Nature and when has it been bought off by Cultural Conditioning?

In all the texts spawned by or in the same tradition as the Nei-yeh, the solution is the same. Recognizing and manifesting innate nature comes from the mental clarity (shên) that arises from a state of internal quietude and bodily alignment. Conversely, excessive emotions and desires distort the mirror of our heart-mind (hsin). This emotional turbulence muddies our cognition, making us more susceptible to the urges associated with Cultural Conditioning. Rather than analysis, mental and emotional quietude leads us to our original, innate, birth nature.


1 Roth, Harvard paper, p .611

2 The longevity of this Chinese network of constructs is a clear indication of anti-fragility. Time provides the stress that destroys fragile notions. Although not conclusive (no evidence confers certainty), this millennia-long anti-fragility suggests that there is an enduring validity behind the logic of this Chinese network. Rather than casual or professional curiosity (academic), the growing stability of the network warrants serious investigation.


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